Michael Early was better late than never, displaying his composure in a tight spot for the North Callaway Thunderbirds.
The junior designated hitter came through with a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning Friday night to send North Callaway to a dramatic 4-3, non-conference victory over state-ranked Sturgeon.
The victory was the third straight for the Thunderbirds (11-6). The Bulldogs - ranked No. 9 in Class 1 - slipped to 9-6.
With North Callaway trailing 3-2 and down to its last out in the seventh, junior center fielder Brandon Hagedorn initiated the rally by drawing a walk. Hagedorn then raced to third on senior second baseman Tanner Murphy's single to center.
After Murphy stole second, Early slashed a 2-2 pitch into left-center for a single to chase home Hagedorn with the tying run and Murphy with the game-winner.
The Thunderbirds opened the scoring on Murphy's RBI single in the first, but Sturgeon answered with two runs in the second to go on top. Senior starter Chance Kee responded with an RBI single for North Callaway in the third to tie the game at 2-all, but the Bulldogs countered again with a run in the third to regain the lead.
The score remained that way until Early topped off the Thunderbirds' comeback in the seventh.
Early went 2-for-3 as North Callaway amassed 12 hits. Senior shortstop Nate VanBoening was also 3-for-4 with two runs scored and a stolen base, while Murphy finished 2-for-4. Junior Paul Zerr - who earned the victory in relief - also went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles.
Zerr (2-2) worked three innings after Kee was lifted, giving up an unearned run on three hits. Zerr struck out four and issued a walk.
"The team kept on battling for seven innings and never gave up," North Callaway head coach Kevin O'Neal said. "Michael Early had a great game at the plate and came up with the big hit.
"This should give us confidence going into the Fulton Tournament."
The Thunderbirds (5-9) dropped the junior varsity game 3-1.
North Callaway faces defending Class 3 state champion Fatima at 2 p.m. Monday at Westminster College in the first round of the 20th-annual Fulton Tournament. Host Fulton will play Moberly in the other first-round pairing, also at 2, at the high school athletic complex.
The winners will then meet in the semifinals at 4:30 at the high school, while the losing teams will square off in the consolation semifinals at the same time at Westminster.